Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .

. . . two orbiting black holes spun closer and closer and finally merged, sending ripples in space-time across the universe which were observed on Sept. 14, 2015 by some talking apes inhabiting a coating of slime on a speck of dust. By a long time ago I mean about 1.3 billion years ago, which is just another way of saying how far, far away it was.

The physicists who made this observation are saying it's a very big deal. Welllll . .. .kinda. It doesn't change anything at all about our understanding of the universe, it just confirms what has been understood for (coincidentally) just about 100 years before the observation, when Einstein published the theory of general relativity. In the years since, it has been confirmed by every test, including one that indirectly confirmed the existence of gravitational waves. Einstein himself didn't even think they would ever be detected because they are too subtle. So in that sense it's not a discovery at all. It is for sure an astonishing feat of technology. And it should lead to future detection of cataclysmic events, including some of much smaller magnitude that occur closer by.

But the real implications are philosophical. Again, nothing that many people -- but not most -- don't already understand. The scale of the universe is completely beyond the intuitive grasp of humans. This event happened, according to counting logarithms on my fingers, on the order of 10^20 kilometers away. According to the investigators, each of the black holes weighed about 30 times the mass of the sun; the event momentarily generated more energy than the entire light output of the universe, an impossibly tiny fraction of which humans just detected. You would not have wanted to be up close and personal. That tiny fraction represented a displacement smaller than the charge diameter of a single proton.

The very weird thing is that it only took 3 pounds of mush inside the heads of some of those talking apes to figure out how to look for these waves, and to find them. We pack about 86 billion neurons into that mush, which is all it takes to operate the body, eat fuck and fart, and discover a universe in which we are absolutely nothing. It's really no wonder that lots of people just don't want to believe it.


robin andrea said...

Are you saying that we humans are not the center of the god-created universe? No way. Have you not seen the Republican candidates? I'm pretty sure Donald Trump shook those black holes with his shattering wisdom.

Daniel said...

This announcement was so cool it gave me chills for all the reasons you mention.

What is the average age of an advanced technology civilization before it self destructs (the L factor)? We need more time! There is so much more to know.